ccd-logo1.jpg (12597 bytes)Dwight Peck's lengthy tales


faith and doubt in the time of Queen Elizabeth I

Part 1. ENGLAND (1577-1583)



"When wert thou born, Desire?
In pride and pomp of May.
By whom, sweet boy, wert thou begot?
By Self Conceit, men say."
-- The earl of Oxford

On a warm day in early spring 1577, the earl of Oxford strode up the Strand from Whitehall, past Charing Cross. He wore an easy smile, and beamed upon the city-folk, happy. Behind him came his men, Sanckie and Weeks together, then Curtis and the boy Rafe Hopton, all in their Reading tawny jackets emblazoned with the crest of the blue boar. The carters and housewives made way for them with deferential nods.

Oxford, still a young man of twenty-seven, was scarcely in himself a prepossessing sight. A bit lower than middle height and ungracefully solid, his claim to recognition showed itself chiefly in his clothes, which were extravagant. His face was normally petulant and cold, round and soft, with a weak chin but with a high-browed arrogant set that suggested intelligence uneasily conjoined with obstinacy. The bare trace of a moustache made him appear somewhat younger than he was, and his swaggering gait had much the same effect.

Oxford's life heretofore had been a vain kicking at velvet traces. Born to one of the noblest families in the realm, he had been left fatherless at the age of twelve, and had entered then-Mr. Secretary Cecil's household as a ward of the queen. There he had found a regimen strict enough, with his boyhood education, at which he excelled, and his exercises at dancing and the courtly arts, but his spirits grew expansive. At the age of seventeen he had taken umbrage at some discourtesy proffered him by one of the cooks at Cecil House, and goading the man into drawing upon him he had slain him with his dagger. Mr. Secretary had had all he could do to arrange a verdict of self defense.

In time, Oxford joined the life at court and devoted himself to demonstrating his new mastery of the courtier's skills. The queen was impressed by his dancing and musicianship; in the tournaments at Westminster, even at the age of twenty-one, he bore away chief honors. In the same year, that is in 1571, he married the Secretary's daughter, Anne Cecil; if in heraldic terms it was not the most glorious match he could have made, nonetheless it served to make him son-in-law of the most powerful politician in England, the man soon to be created Lord Burghley, the Lord Treasurer of the realm.

But Oxford was unsatisfied. His cousin Thomas Howard, the duke of Norfolk, was imprisoned in the Tower, awaiting trial in the charge of treason for his conspiracies with the captive queen of Scots and her agents. All Europe was attending to the affair. Queen Mary's friends feared that the slightest move ill-considered might bring her to trial in the same charge, might provide the excuse her enemies sought to remove her as the center of discontent. Young Oxford sought out the duke's friends and demanded action. They demurred. The time for action had passed. So Oxford bribed some guards and hired a boat and waited below the Tower Wharf through two successive nights, ready to waft the duke over the seas in a daring escape directly out of the medieval romances; but the duke never came, and the guards walked stolidly across the battlements on their rounds.

Norfolk was executed in June of 1572; though the government feared the event, the duke received his death by the stroke of an axe with pious calm and an expression of love for his good queen. It was generally held among all the Howard clan that the earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's favorite, had been chief architect of the duke's destruction; he had encouraged the duke in his hopes of marrying the queen of Scots, but, when Elizabeth had learned of the plan by ill chance, he had thrust it all upon Norfolk's head and melted away like snow in the sun on the Tower walks.

Following Norfolk's death, while the Howards wept and stayed at home, Oxford threw himself once more into life at court, determined to master the queen by his graces and charm and wit and to supersede Leicester as her favorite. Successes came quickly, but not quickly enough for Oxford. Seeking a place to demonstrate his martial skills as well, he found out the only war in progress, the rebellion against the Spanish in the Netherlands, and in 1574 he began plotting his escape to the front. He cast about for good fellows to accompany him; the good fellows brought word promptly to Lord Burghley, and between the motion and the act fell the Lord Treasurer.

ccd-oxford.jpg (16172 bytes)

Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford,
1550-1604 (Welbeck Abbey)

Oxford's career at court, by his place and by his person, was assured. But he remained ill at ease, and he chafed at the quiet, even life marked out for him by birth and circumstances; every disappointment was cause for discontent, every check received at court was an offense he could not stomach. He sought chivalric glory, not to be found in dancing. So over the seas he went after all.

The earl accomplished little on the continent. The Catholics in exile hailed him as a hero at his coming, anxious as they were for every sign of disaffection at home, but this only made him nervous. Sir Henry Bedingfield was dispatched from court to fetch him home, and he let himself be fetched. Within days of his return, through the good offices of Lord Burghley and his friends, the queen smiled once more upon the wayward earl.

Despite the queen's forgiveness, Oxford was still restless and anxious to be busy. Finally, in January 1575, he won permission to make a sort of Grand Tour, and for a year and a half he roamed the continent, spending far more money than he had and posting angry letters to Lord Burghley, reproaching him for not sending more. Increasingly he rankled under Burghley's bit, and he succeeded in convincing himself while playing the grandee in European courts that he owed his allegiance to no man. When in April 1576 he finally came home, having delayed his return too many times, he would have no more to do with the Cecils, the father who kept his purse strings, the daughter who curtailed his absolute freedom. Burghley, bewildered at this disheartening display of aristocratic temperament, continued to press for reconciliation and never failed to speak for the earl in the queen's ear. But Oxford went his own way, and spent his time in the shadows of the court, wearing fine clothes, drinking with his friends, grumbling aloud about the injustices he was forced to suffer silently.

When the earl and his party, having passed Somerset House on the river side of them, came up to Arundel House nearby, Sanckie and Curtis passed through the great gate and beat upon the door. Fitzalan, the ancient earl of Arundel, was in the country, where almost exclusively he was passing his last years, but the house was frequented by any number of the Howard clan. In short space, Oxford's men re-emerged, and after them walked Lord Harry Howard and Mr. Charles Arundell, both appearing a little put out. Together the band crossed Temple Bar and turned northward into Chancery Lane, past the Office of the Rolls on the right and, further on, Lincoln's Inn on the left. At the top of the road, they would be out of the clustered houses of the city and among the fields of Holborn, where rose the roofs and chimneys of Southampton House.

As they walked, Lord Oxford, affected by the bright day and bracing air, grew expansive, and chattered on about the bowls. He had just beaten soundly the master of the 'Chequers Inn, a giant of a man whose prowess on the green was fabled through seven counties. Charles should have seen his play; how he swung the ball with matchless grace, how his line went smoothly to the pins with every hurl. Harry should have seen the landlord's drooping countenance when he realized into what company he'd had the hard luck to fall. From the gentlemen roundabout he had taken eight or ten pounds in the queen's best coin.

"And now," proclaimed the earl, revelling in his victory; "now for a mass!"

His companions started, and glanced about the narrow street.

"Look now, look now," Lord Harry remonstrated.

The earl laughed aloud. "Never fear, my fathers, when you are with Oxford you must feel safer than a bishop's wife. No man will frighten me with hobgoblins or gibbets."

Howard and Arundell looked first at one another, then uncomfortably over their shoulders at Oxford's liveried men some paces behind.

Oxford fell to laughing again and said, "Gentlemen, please," in mock offended tone, "why, these good fellows are more loyal to their lord than we are to the queen. You have no cause to insult upon them with your suspicious minds."

"I tell you again, Ned," replied Howard, "this is serious business. For months you have been importuning us with this desire of yours, and we have long considered the danger of satisfying you. You must know that lives hang as it were in the balance in this, and the indiscretion which you use may be sufficient to sink them down where they will never see the light of day."

"Oh well, Harry," said the earl, "where there is risk, you know, there is adventure, and where not, not. You would have us all in our dark chambers telling over our beads and mumbling paternosters to our pillows, would you not? Is it not the risk which brings the glory?"

"If there is glory in this battle," said Arundell in a low voice, "it will come in heaven and not on the earth. This is none of your great tournaments, milord, with blue scarves tied upon your lances and kisses thrown you from the scaffolding." Behind them, Weeks and Curtis were talking of some business of their own, while young Rafe hopped along behind his master and tall, silent Sanckie strode evenly near at hand, his head down as if meditating to himself or listening to the bustle of the law students emerging from Lincoln's Inn. Oxford was not to be put out of humor by these too sober remarks.

"You may say what you like, Charles, but I say we are damned heroic. I say we have greater glory in this business of faiths than ever old Mortimer had who overthrew King Edward, or than had Henry of Richmond when he rose up against the hunchback king. For these were soldiers merely, who sought their own advantage, but we, Charles, we are men of principle and high aims, who will not be kept from the path of holiness and right."

Here even Howard had to smile. "I pray God," he said, "you know what you are about, Ned." Arundell stared straight ahead, evidently much displeased.

"But do you, Harry, speak to me of risks? It is you not I who writes to the queen in prison; and what of the risk in that? And when her false Scottish servants up and cry mercy, it is you not I who are dragged along in and examined and queried every way until you cannot tell your mother's name. You persist in this in despite of such near 'scapes, and do you speak to me of risks? Come, you are the scholar, show me your logic here."

Howard strode along with a wry grin of forbearance on his lips. "There was never, milord, the slightest question what my mother's name is."

"No one has the hardihood to say so to your face!" cried Oxford, clapping Lord Howard on the back.

They had reached the head of Chancery Lane. A small dark man slipped out from between the adjoining buildings and joined them at mid-street. He bowed to Oxford, as Lord Harry nodded curtly to him and walked on.

"Milord," said Arundell, "you have not met friend Paget."

Oxford shook the man's hand heartily, which gave the fellow evident pleasure. "This is Tom Paget's brother, is it? We meet at last, friend Paget, I'm very glad. How does your brother do, then?"

"He does very well, your lordship. Country matters keep him, he would be with you else, I'm sure he would."

"Country matters, is it? Very good; seeking for what he has lost in some wench's placket, I have no doubt. We were speaking even now of risks, Mr. Paget. You must beg Mr. Arundell now to tell you of his own risks in Ireland. For did you not, Charles, slip over to Ireland to hold conference with the discontented there, not six months past? Confess it now, it is a thing of honor, ha, it is in every mouth. Is that not a proper taking of risk?"

Arundell looked surprised. "Why hold there, Ned. I've not been in Ireland in my life."

"Come now, Charles, upon my soul you have; did you not cross over to Ireland in, say, this September last, there to hold conference with Baltinglass and his brothers? Come now, we know you did, and love you for it."

"I did not. I say again I have never been in Ireland."

"Oh Charles, we are all friends here. Here, Sanckie," Oxford said, beckoning to his man to come up with them. "Sanckie, did you not tell me that Mr. Arundell had been in Ireland some six months gone?"

"I did say what I heard said, milord," replied the servant.

"No, Ned, I was in Cornwall then," Arundell said, looking into Sanckie's blank, accipitrine face. "My brother and I were at Lanherne with our cousin's friends. I cannot guess where your man has heard otherwise. I have never been in Ireland, nor had I any conversation with Baltinglass, whom I know not."

"Well, you are pleased to be discreet. Very well; well, well," grinned Oxford. Sanckie dropped back to his fellows, his face as impassive as ever. "Oh, by the bye, Arundell, here is your book, for the which many thanks to you. Curtis, the gentleman's book. Thank you. It is well penned, Charles, but I cannot say I like his matter. I would we might question further upon it."

"As you wish," said Arundell, tucking the article beneath his doublet with some haste.

Southampton House loomed before them, not a great house by aristocratic standards but humbling all the other buildings in the district. Two wings rose high on either side, flanking between them the main block with the great gate resting imposingly in the center.

As they approached the doors, Charles Paget hurried ahead and knocked upon the wood. The portals swung inward, and a small girl in black dress fled down the hall to summon up the household. Oxford dispatched his retainers and the gentlemen moved into the great hall, where a short, stocky man in steward's habit came forward to greet them.

"You are welcome, your lordships, very welcome truly. Your lordships are most welcome, most welcome," he was saying, dipping his brow to each of the visitors, backing before them into the hall.

"This is Tom Dymock, masters," said Paget, as the sallow little man grinned and touched his forehead.

"We wish to see your master, Dymock. Kindly tell him so." Howard spoke harshly to the man, who was disliked among Southampton's friends. The earl's dependence upon the slippery little servant seemed often almost eerie, and he was counted an unhealthy influence upon the family, from whom however the earl could not be weaned.

Dymock dipped again, still grinning, and said, "His lordship is unluckily indisposed, my masters, and cannot descend to you. Will you be so good? You are most welcome, sirs," backing quickly down the hall.

The great hall, two stories high within, was dominated by massive fireplaces at either side; at the far end rose twin staircases along the walls, turning at right angles halfway up and ascending to meet at a door on the level of the first floor. Up these stairs Dymock scurried, followed by Oxford, Howard, and Arundell, with Charles Paget hurrying behind. From the narrow corridor at the stairs' head, they passed into the long gallery, where they met the boy Henry, but four years old, rolling a ball in a vain attempt to knock over the pins his nurse had set for him. From a chair nearby, his older sister watched his play morosely.

At the end of the gallery, Dymock paused before a closed door and received a mumbled answer to his knock. Within, the earl of Southampton sat half in recline before a window, with a lap rug drawn up over his gown.

"Excuse me for not standing, gentlemen," he said, turning round to greet them. "Good morning, Oxford, we have not seen you in more than one season."

Dymock hurried over with a chair for Oxford, who seated himself opposite Southampton before the window. The earl of Southampton was plainly in ill health, for his thin frame was sunk spiritlessly back into the chair and his head inclined tiredly to one side or the other when he gazed upon his friends. Though only thirty-two, some five years younger than Howard and Arundell, he seemed prematurely to have grown old. Never a strong man, he had been debilitated by eighteen months' residence in the Tower at the time of Norfolk's troubles. Unkind spirits whispered that his reason might have been affected as well.

Howard asked politely after the welfare of the young countess. Dymock stood behind the earl as he swung his feet from the window seat and tried to sit up.

"Ah she's very well, Harry; she is very well indeed," he replied, with unwonted energy. "It may be she is too well, do you see; she is as healthy as a hot-blooded young mare!"

Howard and Arundell looked at one another in embarrassment. "Oh my lord--," began Lord Harry, but Southampton cut him off.

"No, Harry, I know what I say. She is in her chambers, and served there only, not to go out of doors. There is a certain young stallion of the baser sort--."

"Your lordship, do not agitate yourself," said Dymock, reaching down to settle the earl's rug upon him.

"Oh yes, quite, quite, Tom. You are right." The earl reclined his head upon his pillow. "Family matters, eh? But go then, go then, your visit, my friends, to what do I owe this pleasure?"

"A question in religion, milord," said Arundell. "Oxford would speak a little with our friend for his resolution in a point of religion."

"Oh would he?" asked the earl. "Well, Oxford, you must await your turn. Half of London--the better half, eh?--has been in this house these three weeks, all upon questions in religion."

"I intend to be reconciled to the church," said Oxford. "That is the point I wish to be resolved upon; I wish to hear the mass. I'll have none of your school points of doctrine. There is one only point I wish to be resolved upon."

"Well, my friend, it is well. You have given the matter much thought already, I see." The earl was gazing out over his gardens below with a hint of a smile playing across his features. "And what do you think would your father-in-law say, my dear fellow?" he asked, chuckling almost gleefully to himself.

"I have only one master, sir, and he is myself," Oxford blurted.

"And he is Christ!" corrected the earl. "Eh, Harry, he is Christ, eh?"

"Yes, my lord," said Lord Howard.

Some seconds passed as Southampton continued gazing upon the knot gardens carefully patterned out below them. Far out against the rear hedges, near a broad arcuate band of shrubbery that formed as it seemed a sort of altar before which he sat, a slight, delicately dressed young gentleman was reading quietly in the arbor. Beyond the hedge, the fields stretched silently to the horizon in rolling hillocks and deep green lines of wood.

"Well," said Southampton finally, nodding to himself, "Fiat voluntas tua. He must meet our friend, then, eh Harry?"

"I think he must," said Howard, rising.

"Good day then, gentlemen. I am sorry, truly--. God be with you, gentlemen." The earl's head lolled back upon the chair once more, his eyes closing into peaceful dozing.

One by one, the gentlemen filed out through the door, preceded by the oleaginous Dymock. Descending by a narrow stairwell in the rear of the house, they emerged directly upon the terraces. The gardens into which they entered were laid out in an immense square, divided by four walks that radiated geometrically from the center, and reticulated further by smaller paths that ran among the knots of floral design. As they passed along the straightforward in the direction of the northern hedges, the young man in the arbor looked up and smiled amiably, discreetly closing his book and tucking it into his jacket.

Richard Stephens was a very handsome man in a delicate way, with a sensitive face and large almond-shaped eyes and long, thin fingers. His dress was that of a gentleman of substance, good material in a not unfashionable cut, but without any of the ostentations of the courtier. His lime-green jacket, without slashes or lace, he wore buttoned firmly under his chin, and his hose, a deeper green, ended in boots of old-fashioned style. Stephens was an educated man, and a modestly intelligent one, who might have passed for a visiting student from the nearby Inns of Court, but in fact he was a priest.

In 1577 it was not technically a criminal matter to be a priest in England. Not until four years later was the act of being reconciled to the church of Rome to be made an act of treason under law; the act of hearing mass to become punishable by a fine and a year's imprisonment; the refusal to attend the Protestant services to entail fines of twenty pounds a month. Not until eight years later was a Jesuit or seminary priest ordained after the first year of the queen's reign to be accounted ipso facto a traitor if taken on English soil, with no evidence required against him but his cloth. Notwithstanding the letter of the law, however, the priest who fell into government hands was in a very sorry case. He might be asked whether he believed the pope had the right to depose a queen as a heretic and to absolve her subjects from obedience: depending upon whether he answered for the queen or the pope, he endangered either soul or body. There might be found upon him a copy of the pope's bull of excommunication against the present monarch, and possession of the bull was indeed a hanging offense.

So far few priests had returned into England; the young men who fled to the seminaries overseas upon the instance of their consciences, many of them scholars or graduates of Oxford or the first born sons of the gentry, were placed elsewhere upon their ordination. But plans were afoot to change all that. Dr. William Allen, in Rheims, heartsick at the plight of pious Catholics who had no priests to comfort them, was even now beginning to send the young men educated in his school back into the realm for the edification of the faithful. There the first revenants lived a precarious existence, dependent upon the courage and good will of special patrons for their sustenance and protection. Fr. Stephens, newly sent from the seminary at Douai, had found his patron in the earl of Southampton.

The priest, rising to greet them as they approached, recognized the crest of the boar embroidered upon Oxford's doublet, and his eyebrows rose imperceptibly. In the small talk that followed, unobtrusively he peered closely at the earl. Arundell hastened to allay the man's doubts.

"His lordship requires some small spiritual guidance, Mr. Stephens," he said. "He asked that we conduct him to a man with some wisdom in these matters."

Stephens looked at Oxford again, murmuring that he would do his humble best, but the earl was impatient.

"Nay, I intend to join the holy church," he said. "You, sir, unless I am very far out, are a priest, so now likes me as much as any time to get the business done."

Lord Harry appeared ruffled by his companion's manner and laid a hand upon the earl's arm. Stephens, however, was undisturbed.

"Well, my lord, then we shall have our little speech. Shall we walk on?" And so, excusing himself from the others, Stephens led the earl back towards the house. Arundell could see Oxford talking animatedly to the listening priest, as they ascended to the terrace and entered the building through a small door in the west wing. Charles Paget turned to the others and prepared to take his leave as well.

"I give you good morrow, gentlemen, my business calls me," he said. "Pray you both, be less strange with us in the country. My brother expects you at Beaudesert, Charles. And my sister particularly wished me to convey her greetings to you."

"How fares the Lady Anne these days?"

"Tolerably well, I think. She is not so sprightly as once she was. She makes glum faces and sits long in the window. But she is well rid of that husband of hers."

"Dwells she still at Beaudesert then?"

"Aye, she is with my brother and our mother, at Beaudesert or else at Drayton most times. In a month or two you must ride up. We shall make a merry party. Good day then, sirs."

Paget left them at the arbor and hurried back towards the house. Howard and Arundell, with time upon their hands, reclined in the long grass of the yard and said nothing for some while. Overhead, the clouds were banking up, occluding the sun from time to time, but the day had come on warm and the flowers' scents about them made a pleasant setting for repose. Howard twitted Charles with teasing remarks about Anne Lee, Lord Paget's sister, but Arundell would not rise to the bait. He had seen Anne very seldom through the years. Had not Anne, while still a girl, been married off to Sir Henry Lee now twenty years ago, things might have been far otherwise than they were. Married in the Catholic reign of Mary, Sir Henry had been quicker to adapt to the ensuing Protestant regime than his wife had. Now that her husband had sent her home from the Court, where as the Queen's Champion he lived a life that needed no suspicion for religion, Charles intended to see her even less: in the eyes of the church she was still not free.

"What is your book, Charles?" Lord Howard inquired.

"Eh? Oh, the book of your brother Norfolk's death," said Arundell. "I had it of Shaw this three months past, and Oxford borrowed it of me a week or more since."

ccd-lordharry.jpg (17274 bytes)

Lord Harry Howard, ca.1594, later 1st earl of Northampton in the next reign

"May I look?"

"Aye, of course," said Arundell, drawing it forth from beneath his doublet. "You have seen it, I believe. It would seem it was printed beyond the seas. Much overstates the Lord Treasurer's villainy, I should think--see there in the opening leaves."

Lord Harry turned over the pages thoughtfully. "Yes, I have seen it once before. Y're quite right, Charles; old Burghley had no hand in this pie; I think our author is hardly well informed. I wonder to find Lord Robin of Leicester play no greater role in it than this author makes him do."

"Belike he had his tale from the bishop of Ross."

"Ah I ever distrusted the feckless Ross. And I ever admonished my brother to quit his company. It was one Hyde that penned the thing, I think?"

"So I have heard it said, Harry," Arundell replied.

Lord Howard snapped the volume shut and returned it.

"I should burn the foul thing if I were you, Charles. It would breed some ill were it to drop carelessly from you in the walks of Richmond Palace or some such."

"Yes, I will do it. I think you have heard that divers of your brother's old servants have been brought up at the sessions court in Norwich? For traducing Leicester in that unhappy business."

"Well, but if they proceeded against everyone who spoke frank words of my Lord Robin, the sheriff would have no sleep for many months to come." Lord Harry rose to the arbor seat and crossed his legs wearily. "But I thank God they are not my servants now, Charles."

"Well, they are yours now, actually."

"Oh. Worse luck."

Time passed pleasantly in this quiet spot. They spoke of the hunt, and then of the stars; Howard's studies had brought him deep into the lore of astrology, and patiently upon occasion he explained to Arundell the methods and signs of the scientist. Talk passed desultorily from one topic to the next, and eventually to Oxford and his new religious scruples.

Arundell once again doubted the wisdom of initiating the earl into the persecuted faith, but again Lord Howard insisted that the strength of their cause depended upon the commitment of such illustrious noble families as the house of de Vere. If Oxford himself were a weak reed, he was nonetheless more valuable for the cause than against it, and so mercurial was the young earl in his passions that if they could not bind him to the papists now, they might well find him ranged on the other side tomorrow.

Still Arundell demurred, though diffidently. Howard, with many of their friends, saw the old religion as the symbol of their interests, the declining state of the great old families that found themselves threatened and displaced on every side by the new men, who had no good conception of the traditional patterns of authority and place that held society together. Arundell inclined to consider the faith more or less a private matter, and tried persistently to believe that if they all went their ways dutifully and discreetly and made no threat to the worship of other men, no objection would be raised against them.

"Sometimes I think you are a child, Charles," Lord Harry laughed. "For so long as you worship otherwise than the queen's church would have you to worship, for so long do you lie open to your enemies. These busy men cannot let well alone, but must have their 'godly reformation' maugre the cost. We must continue to build, block upon block, timber upon beam, until we have built a house in which we may worship openly, and when we have done that, then shall we be masters of that house, and take our meals at the great table with the queen, not in the kitchens with the baser sort, or--and it may come to this, Charles--in the cellars with the rats."

"But it is a very big house, Harry, with room enough for all, it may be."

Howard grew serious and addressed his friend intently. "Look you, Charles, for why did my brother make combinations with the queen of Scots and all his friends, men of the greatest houses in the realm? Why, think you, did the late Northumberland that was, and my brother-in-law of Westmoreland, rise up in '69? Because only, Charles, they saw themselves being thrust aside, like servingmen with unsweet breath. And they saw aright, Charles, however they may have comported themselves like noddies. By these damned fellows newly sprung up with their hypocritical neoteric creeds."

"Well, it may be, Harry, it may be," said Arundell, half convinced by these arguments every time he heard them.

"Say not may be: it is, Charles. Why, do you think, is not Southampton on the Council, nor Montague, nor Northumberland that now is, nay nor Worcester, nor Rutland, nor your good friend Oxford? and my old lord of Arundel humored merely. Nay, Charles, we must build our strength and resume our places, before everything is lost in the swirl of these times. And in the Scottish queen is our hope. She shall be free and recognized as heir to this throne, and then shall all England flock to us, for honors, for offices, for every suit, for friendship. We must think of the future, lad; if events continue as erst they have begun, we shall soon not find a corner to hide our heads in."

Arundell was staring into the grass, newly sprung up with the spring rains and growing thick upon the turf. "Well," quoth he, "you have your Oxford now. There's no finer fellow in his cups, Harry, with his merry cantrips and his whigmaleeries, but for religion, by God, you must excuse me."

"Ah you are a west country man, Charles, so you are." Arundell made a wry face at him. In due course, Oxford emerged upon the terrace and waved to them. Howard and Arundell arose and walked back up the path. In the great hall, Tom Dymock was sorting the gentlemen's cloaks, while Stephens strolled along the walls glossing the portraits upon them for the earl's benefit. As they parted at the main doors, the priest slipped the tiny volume he'd earlier been reading from beneath his jacket and pressed it into Oxford's hands.

"Peruse it well, your lordship," Stephens urged him, "but with care lest your meaning be mistaken. Less charitable heads than ours are abroad these days, we are told."

"Well, I'll read it. What a devil is it, some book of papistical prayers, is it?" he replied, chuckling at his effrontery.

Stephens smiled mildly. "Only a simple guide to the difficult road we have to walk, milord. Some small food for the starving soul."

"I'll read it, never fear for me. What this soul needs, however, gentlemen, I do not hesitate to tell you, is a cup of sack. Come, let us be off."

With Oxford's men, they struck off down Chancery Lane.

"So you are a papist now, Ned?" asked Lord Howard.

Oxford stopped in mid-career and looked at them both. "I am," he answered. "No barrel better herring!"

He collapsed in laughter at his jest. Arundell looked blankly at Lord Howard, who shrugged.

Just to the east of Chancery Lane lay a maze of crooked alleys and irregular roofs that had sprung up long ago for the convenience of the legal gentlemen during term times. Here, amid the hostelries and tiny inns, lay the town residences of a number of Catholic friends, such as Gage and Cornwallis and the Wisemans, and among the rest, the London house of William Shelley. As Sanckie and Weeks continued towards the city to their master's house in Bread Street, the rest of the party turned into the narrow lane. Bustles of busy people made way for them, while children stared silently as they passed.

Shelley's house was indistinguishable from the others on the street. Its low ground floor abutted upon the curb, while above, the first story, with its shallow bay window, loomed out overhead, the second story and its bay projecting still further above that. Surmounting these jettied floors was a gable carved with monsters to frighten off intruders. Oxford's party ascended the narrow staircase past the kitchens to the hall on the first floor. Here Shelley sat in his coffer-seat chair near the bay, as the others ranged about on settles and stools, passing the time inconsequentially until luncheon was prepared. During the meal, they discussed with Shelley his schemes for improvements upon his commodious home at Michelgrove; he loved nothing better than planning additions to his country seat, few of which ever came to fact.

After lunch, Oxford fell to recounting the latest tales of the earl of Essex's suspicious death in Dublin the preceding September. "Not long since," he began, "it was my chance to come to the understanding of divers particulars concerning that noble gentleman's end. The matter was wrought," he said, "especially by Crompton, yeoman of his bottles, by the procurement of Lloyd, the earl's secretary, afterwards employed by the earl of Leicester for the better covering of the fact. And there was poisoned at the same time and with the same cup (as given of courtesy by the earl) one Mistress Alice Draycot, who departing thence towards her own house, began to fall sick very grievously upon the way and continued with increase of pains and excessive torments by vomiting until she died, her body swollen unto a monstrous bigness and deformity."

"These stories have been very common, milord," Arundell interjected. "If the earl died of an extreme flux, it is not for us to judge how he came by it in boggy Ireland."

"Nay, but there is more," said Oxford. "Young Robin Hunnis also, whose father is Master of the Children of her majesty's chapel, being at that time page to the said earl and accustomed to take the taste of his drink, by his taste that he then took of the compound cup, though in very small quantity, as you know the fashion is, yet was he like to have lost his life, but escaped in the end, being young, with the loss only of his hair. This young Hunnis reported openly, Charles, in divers places and before divers gentlemen of worship since his coming into England, and another at his passage this way towards France did most constantly report the same, where he might do it without the terror of my lord of Leicester's revenge. Now, I ask you, gentlemen, what nobleman within the realm may be safe if this is to be suffered?"

Oxford looked from one to the other with a kind of petulance, as if he'd been urging use of the cane upon unruly children.

"But soft, my lord, if these men be able witnesses, why do we have no trial of the truth?" said Shelley. "It would seem that his lordship must be called to justice in this cause."

Lord Howard smiled faintly. "Who is there who will stand up against the rushing torrent of his power? If he may but deceive the queen's good judgment, what need he trouble himself with the rest of us?"

"But, gentlemen," said Arundell, "I stand not here to defend the earl of Leicester wherein he has truly offended, yet I have heard reliably that the Lord Deputy of Ireland peered closely into Essex's death and reports most earnestly that natural disease was wholly the cause of it."

"Pooh, Henry Sidney is my Lord Robin's brother-in-law! What other might he say?" exclaimed Lord Harry. "Do you call to mind the widow Lettice, who now goes all in black and weeps great crocodile's tears; did my lord not baggle her in the good earl's lifetime? Was not my lord of Essex determined even to revenge himself upon Leicester for his adultery, and on the point of coming home to put this into effect when he was prevented by this facinorous fact?"

"Some say that Leicester poisoned old Throgmorton, too," said Oxford, "belike to prevent his unfolding more of his lordship's treachery in Norfolk's case. Others will avouch religiously that the Cardinal Chtillon met a like fate in his way by Canterbury. And the horrible, flagitious murder of his own wife is too infamous to bear repeating."

"Well, it is a sad world," said Arundell.

"But it will be a merry world when once we have a little reformed it," Oxford cried. "Come now, Charles, you must see that, but for these bad men, the world should go on wheels."

Lord Harry, pacing the room behind him, observed that time would tell the tale, and that with God's help the time of justice would doubtless one day come.

"One day come," said Oxford. "One day come! Gentlemen, observe my meditation now. Suppose that there were many other gentlemen throughout the realm, in all its corners and bays and forests and valleys, who think aright as we do. Suppose too that there were friends beyond the seas who do perceive that sad case we are kept in, and do lament thereof. What do you think? Suppose further that these said friends and these said gentlemen were to join together in good faith and endeavor to do what can be done for remedy."

Shelley, perplexed by this oblique manner of speech, demanded to know what his meaning was.

"Well," said Oxford, "do you not think the Scottish queen might find better entertainment than now she has? Do you not think that Leicester and other her enemies might look well with their heads upon the Southwark gate of London Bridge?" "My lord. Enough!" shouted Shelley, his face gone purple with anger. "These are three too many supposings for this house, sir!"

"All right, Shelley. Peace, man; they were but supposings. But I must tell you, gentlemen, if matters continue as they are, before long the earl of Leicester shall be king himself, and there shall be Puritan basket-weavers enjoying our estates while we sit chin-upon-fist in Newgate jail. Mark me, gentlemen, I know them!"

"No doubt you do, Ned, but do keep your tongue in, won't you." Lord Harry was plainly weary of the earl's talk, which threatened to become his common theme.

"Well, I am in good earnest, Harry. We are kept down now, but I shall raise you up, will you or nill you." Oxford stared fiercely round the silent room. Abruptly, he stood up. "Call me my men, Shelley, I am off."

And so the earl departed. The others remained for some time more, speaking of other matters, but uncomfortably, as if Oxford's words were being heard again and again. He voiced the frustrations of them all, but his temperament and precipitous manner gave rise to many misgivings. It was therefore in a sober mood that Arundell and Howard left the house towards evening, parting in the alley before the door. Howard turned west and rejoined Chancery Lane, walking on to Arundel House, past Leicester's house in the Strand. Arundell struck off in the opposite direction, through Shelley's gardens to Fetter Lane behind. As he emerged into the road and strode past Clifford's Inn on the right, he noticed a small man in dark clothes come out of the gates and hurry south behind him.

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The day's warmth was seeping away, and a chill was entering the darkening air. Arundell drew his cloak about him as he passed into Fleet Street and made east along the row towards the city gate. As a Queen's Servant, he was allowed a chamber at court, residing presently at Whitehall, but though he made use of his rooms in the other palaces of the queen, when she was in Westminster he preferred to lodge in town. He kept chambers in one of Northumberland's houses, the Priory Mansion in Blackfriars within the gate, where he found more privacy than he could have hoped for among the serried courtiers in the palace.

As he approached Salisbury Court across the road, Arundell came upon his friend Cotton just entering his house at the bottom of Shoe Lane. Pausing to pay his respects to his kinsman, courteously he turned round and faced west lest Cotton should have to look into the setting sun above St. Dunstan's steeple. Over Cotton's shoulder he saw across the road, conversing with an old woman before the Hanging Sword, the same small man in black attire. He watched the fellow for a moment, until Cotton noticed his inattention and tasked him playfully for his manners. Then, with salutations, they parted, and Arundell continued on his way, past the conduit, down the hill, and over Fleet Ditch to Ludgate.

Turning south within the gate, he entered the dark labyrinth of the Blackfriars liberty, coming presently over Carter Lane and past the Wardrobe and St. Andrew's. Surreptitious glances over his shoulder confirmed what he had feared; the dark man was following him. Arundell slowed his pace in order to think.

London teemed with cutpurses and roaming thieves in the night season, but these graceless nips and foists surprised one from black alleyways, commonly, or jostled against one in the thoroughfares; they did not stalk their prey from ward to ward for over a half mile's length. Fresh from the hearing of Oxford's remarks, Arundell found himself abashed. The darkness drew close about him. Turning away from the Priory towards Baynard's Castle near Paul's Wharf, Arundell passed round towards the Thames, quickening his pace and lengthening his distance from the man until, as he observed, the man quickened his pace accordingly. Then, reaching a sharp corner just along the wharf, he ducked around it and receded into the shadows. Almost beneath him as he waited, he could hear the river lapping against the piles, and the boatmen passing one another far out upon the stream.

Over the roofs the sound of the Bow Bell rang out. Arundell shrank back against the black wall. The ward bellman began his evening rounds in the next street. "Remember the clocks," he called; "Look well to your locks." The town was closing up.

"God give you good night," came the lonely cry. "For now the bell ringeth."

Soft footsteps approached suddenly and the man swung round the corner. Arundell sprang forward and seized his cloak with both hands. He jerked the fellow up and hauled him round to face the open street. The bleached little face turned up to him like a snail's belly to the sun--a pasty nose irregularly sloping downward, a mean little mouth now snarling at him words that were unrecognizable. The dark man struggled to come free, one hand snatching at his belt for a weapon. Arundell held him firmly, but could do no more; he was frozen in place by an awful astonishment. The man's one eye rolled crazily in anger; the other eye was absent; there was only a blank white stone, as it seemed, filmed over with a nacreous glaze that caught the moonlight. Arundell stepped back in disgust. The little man tore free with an oath and dashed across the road, disappearing into Knightrider Street in the direction of St. Paul's. When the sound of his running feet had died away, there was nothing but the lapping of the river, and the distant call of the bellman.

Arundell leant back against the wall. He tried to recollect ever having seen the brutal little man before. Doubtless, if ever he had, he should not easily have forgotten it.

He gathered himself and walked back towards the Priory Mansion. Perhaps, after all, it was merely the evil effect of the loathsome, eerie face that so filled him with foreboding. Quietly he unlatched the postern door at the rear of the buildings and entered the tiny hallway. Finding a candle on the shelf by the light of the lantern hanging without, he stooped low and started up the ancient monastic stairwell to his rooms above.

At the head of the stairs, he tapped on the chamber door. A soft voice inquired who was there, and he said, "Charles." The bolts were lifted and the door swung inward. Kate Mullen stood, a small iron pot in one hand, brushing her hair out of her eyes with the other. Arundell entered wearily, removing his things, and went to sit before the open fire, where he watched her preparing a light meal on the hearth.

Kate was a large woman of about thirty-five years, still much prettier than otherwise though her auburn hair was graying softly and her figure had lost some of its former definition. There cohabited within her both the toughened veteran of tavern society and the wistful and tender girl of many years ago. Mullen her husband was a rogue, whose habits were irregular, but he came to fetch her from time to time, and when he came she went with him. The rest of her time she spent in the tavern in which she worked, except when Arundell was in these rooms nearby, at which times she dwelt with him. Over some years their intermittent relationship had evolved into something like a thorough friendship.

And because of that, Kate recognized his present mood. But she did not inquire too closely into it. Rather she watched him silently as, after having eaten, he sat with brows knit gazing into the fire and as, when they had retired, he tossed for hours in uneasy sleep.

goback.gif (2185 bytes)Go back to the Preface and Table of Contents
gonext.gif (2192 bytes)Go ahead to Chapter IV. The Earl of Oxford's Pavan (1577)

bookpen.gif (2870 bytes)Please do not reproduce this text in any form for commercial purposes. Historical references for events recreated in this story can be found in D. C. Peck, Leicester's Commonwealth: The Copy of a Letter Written by a Master of Art of Cambridge (1584) and Related Documents (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985). Feedback and suggestions are welcome, . Written 1973-1989, posted on this site 10 June 2001.


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